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Posts Tagged ‘Transnational Corporations’

Inception and the Unpopularity of Big Business

In Inception (2010) the audience ends up rooting for Cobb, the industrial spy, versus empathizing with Fischer, the undeserved mark of an “anti-heist.” It is one part contemporary worship of the movie star (DiCaprio) and another part distrust of big business. In today’s economic climate, the thief/deceiver garners more sympathy than a corporate CEO. Add in a tortured protagonist who wants to leave his job, clear his name, and return to his family, and you have a recipe for what philosopher David Hume described as an unfair battle between emotions and logic. The end justifies the means, the movie audience embraces a prospective con−and in a short skirmish, the passions win every time.

In the context of our global economy, the film brings up a question of whether certain lines of work are inherently unethical. Are there honorable ways of conducting oneself as a member of the mafia, a prostitute, or a corporate spy? Is redemption possible within these professions or only upon its departure?

Some argue that levels of corporate espionage could be ethical according to extensions of game theory. Entire branches of the electronics and computer industry provide equipment for industrial spies. Despite legal prohibitions, businesses using secret agents and technology seem to bear no more shame than nation-states. The relative lack of prosecution under the Uniform Trade Secrets Act and Economic Espionage Act (1996) disguises the widespread prevalence of underground activity.

Others believe that companies walk a fine line between more socially acceptable forms of competitive intelligence and corporate espionage. From this vantage point, a vocational catharsis may result from realizing that the possibility of ethical espionage only exists in dreams.

For an expanded version of this post, see my chapter on “Honor and Redemption in Corporate Espionage” found in Wiley-Blackwell’s book Inception and Philosophy: Because It’s Never Just a Dream (November 15, 2011).

Exploitation in District 9

In District 9 (2009), the stated public objective for the Multi-National United (MNU) Corporation is transferring 1.8 million aliens to District 10−a relocation camp 240 km outside Johannesburg. The unstated private goal for this weapons manufacturer is discovering how to use the aliens’ inaccessible, technologically-advanced firepower.

Although paralleling Avatar (2010) in form by featuring a corporate-backed paramilitary brigade and a human who becomes “one of them,” the protagonist is pitiful and flawed. Unlike James Cameron’s pièce de résistance, Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 is neither black, white, nor blue. Allusions to apartheid from the South African locale and references toward racism through speciesist language permeate the film.

When MNU discovers that Wikus Van De Merwe’s metamorphosis allows him to wield alien weapons, upper management immediately decides to use this valuable, personal, business artifact against his will. Business exploitation (see Jeremy Snyder’s work on sweatshop labor) is either expressed through a sense of unfairness per economic transactions (as exhibited by the systematic oppression found in the 24 hour eviction notices or market-driven cat food scams) or a lack of respect/dignity as in Van De Merwe’s metamorphosis case. MNU’s anti-Kantian treatment of the project manager as a means only to harvest his organs and replicate his powers repulses the audience. However, If the fate of civilization were dependent on using employee body parts for the greater good instead of an end-profit motive, would a utilitarian argument justifying exploitation be ethical?

In light of corporate exploitation, are employees only inherently valuable by what they can extend or offer an organization? Do they have any personal rights on the clock, or are they completely at the mercy of their employer’s will while paid for their services? It is interesting to note that at the point of Van De Merwe’s highest value to his company, he also found himself most exploitable.

Avatar CSR

Critics who tirelessly pan Avatar’s (2010) message as a recycled, retrospective Dance with Wolves-like’ (1990) analysis of the white man’s treatment of indigenous peoples miss the point. James Cameron is not simply creating a descriptive message of corporate social responsibility (CSR) but prescribes a call toward action to stop repeating the tactics from our collective past. He does not seek to hide the brutal treatment of the Na’vi at the hands of a commercially backed paramilitary brigade devoted ad nauseum to the profit motive. Parker Selfridge, the passive-aggressive head administrator of the Resources Development Administration (RDA) reveals Pandora’s bottom line:

This is why we’re here−unobtainium−because this little gray rock sells for twenty million a kilo. This pays for the whole party.

Jake Sully, the self-reflective ex-marine, resigns himself to his role among the Na’vi: a warrior dreaming he could bring peace. Sooner or later though, he has to “wake up.” Jake openly embraces the connection that the Na’vi have with their Pandora home and the contradictions between his own values and actions.

Giant transnational corporations (see Shell Petroleum and the Ogoni) who use the very same tactics portrayed in Avatar to placate their Boards and shareholders continue to threaten and harass indigenous peoples. Usually there is some nuanced benefit derived from the corporation and descriptive ‘diplomatic’ solutions do not wind up solely as public relations window dressing. However, Cameron’s not-so hidden, ought-not prescriptive message in Avatar is straightforward: the treatment of indigenous peoples for sake of the profit motive is unethical and needs to stop.